(This item is extracted from an article in India’s “The Print” dated December 21, published under the title: “US wants India to ‘get off the fence’ over China. But forgets Cuban crisis lesson”. Portions of the original not reproduced in the Huan Qiu Shi Bao item are shown in strike-through format below for ready reference.)
At some point recently, it seemed that India had no fight with the Chinese at all. One such instance was when US Senator Mark Warner said that India needed to “get off the fence” and join a “coalition of the willing” to confront Beijing. Warner’s comments matter. Re-elected from Virginia, he is the co-chair of the Senate India caucus, and vice-chairman of the Select Intelligence Committee. Other US officials have said the same thing, and it’s no secret that this issue dominates think tank discussions.
Most Indians would find these remarks strange. After all, the Indian Army is engaged in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Ladakh, and is spending billions of rupees that it cannot afford in shoring up defences. That’s hardly ‘sitting on the fence’. But apparently, that’s not good enough for US officials. Deciphering what exactly they want is no easy task. But a look at the main planks of the China policy on both sides (US and India) could help assess the possibility of a ‘league of democracies’ that will hopefully row together for the shore instead of oaring the other into the water.
There is no doubt that under President Donald Trump, Washington has been forthright about the threat from China. True, he sometimes called President Xi Jinping his ‘friend’, but his top officials have been more than forthright. A recent instance was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks at the Tokyo meeting of the ‘Quad’ or Quadrilateral, which includes Japan, Australia and India. Pompeo lambasted the Chinese Communist Party for the ‘cover up’ of the coronavirus outbreak. That was certainly taking the bull by the horns.
India’s stance has been very different, avoiding condemnation of China, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks at the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) being just one example. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar’s enunciations have been on the same lines. For instance, at a recent interaction with an Australian think tank, Jaishankar merely said that relations with China had been damaged “significantly”, also noting that mending of ties would be difficult.
On the talking front then, the US-India partnership is distinctly on a different track. But then, for India, it’s not just a difficult neighbour, but a difficult neighbourhood, where China is also invested heavily. Besides, talking big pays for little when your purse is small.
Government legislation and laws
The US undoubtedly has a raft of government papers like the National Security Strategy 2017, which first bookmarked China as a ‘revisionist power’; the key National Defence Strategy 2018, which prioritised China as a ‘long term competitor’; the Annual eport on the PLA; and most recently, the State Department’s The Elements of the China Challenge, which is meant to fashion a “sturdy” policy that will be above election cycles and bureaucratic squabbles. These are only the major policy papers.
Beyond this is the legislative process that at least tries to go in the desired direction. One such legislation allowed the Department of Defense to fund startups and lead innovation, intended to give the US a lead in critical technologies like Artificial Intelligence where China has an edge.
Another instance is the imposition of sanctions on Chinese companies on different grounds. India moved to not only ban some 267 Chinese apps, but also stopped Chinese (and other) foreign investment from buying out distressed Indian companies. The government also amended the General Financial Rules 2017 to disallow participation of countries sharing land borders with India in government contracts.
India, however, has no tradition of long-term policy planning documents, which might have done much to prevent the surprise of Ladakh. Our policy, therefore, is short term, and subject to election cycles and bureaucratic stove piping. That’s simply not good enough. A long-term policy paper, with elements leaked out to the media, might be a thought. Most vitally, it will put the whole government on the same page.
Alliances and plurilateralism
The US alliance system created after World War II was directed primarily against the Soviets. Europe did participate in theatres like Afghanistan, but their hearts are simply not in it. The Indo-Pacific construct is an attempt to create a semi-alliance outside traditional treaty partners such as Australia and Japan using different platforms including the Quad. Here again, India has chosen to stress ‘inclusivity’, so that it is not seen as directed against China, although Delhi did tag the need for “quality infrastructure based on sovereignty, equality and territorial integrity …as well as transparency, economic viability and financial responsibility” in a rare dig at the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative).
But that was as far as Delhi was willing to go. Meanwhile, it continued to attend forums like the SCO and the Russia-India-China trilateral. That puzzles US watchers as to what is actually the status of China-India relations. But the reality is that relations are never cut off, especially during a crisis, as the US should know from the Cuban missile crisis. Even during the peak of the Cold War, the two sides continued to engage. However, it might be useful to keep the US briefed about the intent and outcomes of these meetings on a case by case basis. Sometimes, transparency can speed up movement of files, and prevent nasty comments in Congress.
Taking Quad to the next level?
The signing of all four foundational agreements with the US and the designation of Delhi as a Major Defense Partner does mean that bilateral relations have reached a new level, even though it falls well short of any treaty alliance. It is unlikely that India will agree to a full treaty relationship that binds it as a junior partner to the US, unless the Chinese threat increases to levels where even the nuclear deterrent is deemed ineffective. That is unlikely, since Beijing knows full well that any outright aggression will have serious consequences.
Short of that, however, it’s possible to broaden the relationship to include a strong intelligence partnership within the Quad, in a manner similar to the Five Eyes Alliance, which comprises the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. All four Quad members critically need to sit together to decide on the threat ten years down the line, and the specifics of capabilities needed against an agreed-upon threat. That, in turn, could be in part the basis for India’s own long-term defence planning.
Japan, Australia and India are already in talks for supply chain resilience to reduce dependence on China. Similar initiatives like cooperation for technology innovation could be considered. But the key here is Quad members sitting down to seriously consider the strategic threat, not just defence. That falls short of ‘one for all and all for one’ defence commitment. But it does put all on a common path of fending off the multifarious threats from China, like cyber attacks, linked espionage and technology theft.
It is said that there is a tide in the affairs of men, including bureaucrats. It’s time to evaluate that tide, one from the west and the other from the east, and then pull together across ministries to move in the desired direction. Coordination is key for all concerned, including the US whose tendency to lecture others on issues that it has little or no understanding of, tends to push the boat in the opposite direction. That could be called ‘sitting on the fence’ too, one which would be mighty uncomfortable to accept.
(The original article an be seen here.)